Kevan Duve: The plight of UW20

It is encouraging to know that GW is among the many universities concerned about writing and literacy. Whether by looking at studies pointing to decreasing literacy rates among college graduates or by listening to anecdotes told by long-time educators, administrators three years ago correctly realized that the standing writing curriculum needed a beefing-up. In this well-intentioned spirit, the University Writing Program was born.

Three years after implementation, though, it is questionable whether GW has achieved anything more than a departmental reshuffling. By failing to devise an appropriate curriculum for UW20, GW has ignored what ought to have been the core of the initiative: determining what gets taught in composition classes.

The pedagogical thrust of the UWP is that requiring students to write more frequently increases their skills. While there’s merit in the “write early and often” approach, it does not, on its own, make for a successful program. It quite naively believes students will themselves to improve after receiving feedback and completing revisions. Feedback is essential, certainly, in correcting grammatical errors and making minor stylistic changes. But a significant question remains: how are students to know what makes for superior writing when they themselves are not studying it?

Look at the reading lists for the UW20 classes and you will see that the use of acclaimed texts as models is not an idea that has come into favor. Instead, you see a mishmash resembling randomly yanked titles from library shelves: history over here, pop culture over there; the insipidly bureaucratic, the stridently political. Some of “the greats” have been welcomed in, but usually not out of any reverence for their talents. Rather, it’s theme we’re after, not quality.

Allow me to belabor a point: venerated authors are the best instructors of writing. They enlarge our sense of possibility, introduce us to new levels of stylistic complexity, teach us precision and grace; they provide not only examples of skillful writing, but models that should be studied and emulated. It is a scandal that we would not make exceptionally talented writers the basis of any composition course. Why are we producing fifth-rate writers? Perhaps it is because we insist upon reading them.

GW needs to junk the theme-based UW20 courses immediately, courses now monopolized by anti-intellectual fluff and far-left politics. The curriculum should be standardized around a text such as “The Norton Reader,” an anthology of oft-feted expository prose across genres: history, science, literature, philosophy. The range of topics surveyed is more than adequate to hold students’ attention. Class would consist of close readings from selected essays, the instructor providing an oral interpretation of the rhetorical and stylistic techniques being employed by the author. Students could respond in papers which comment on the issues the writers take up while modeling their own styles on what they’re reading.

A “great works” approach can simultaneously address both literacy and writing ability. It can also foster literary appreciation. It seems there has been a gradual forgetting of what superb writing actually looks and sounds like – and unless you were made to sit down and forced to reckon with a sophisticated piece of prose, how would you know?

As for the writing in the disciplines courses: generally speaking, they’re well conceived. The University is correct to realize that writing instruction shouldn’t end after UW20; all professors – not only those teaching WID – should critique the quality as well as content of student work. I am concerned, though, that one purpose of WID is to tell students they need to modulate their writing based on their academic major; this seems to be a conceit which ignores that most undergraduates will not go on to become professional academics.

While the University is still focused on making students more adept writers, UW20 must be remodeled. As a rule, if you’re going to expect seriousness, it would be wise to avoid eschewing the greats in favor of a theme.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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